MIAMI (Billboard) - Sony BMG Latin execs were cruising MySpace late last year when they came across the list of most popular unsigned Latin acts. Topping it was Optimo, a trio that plays urban bachata -- a style that mixes traditional Dominican bachata (a guitar-based variation on romantic Cuban bolero) with R&B sensibility and vocalizing.
Sony BMG scooped it up, and in early May, Optimo’s debut album, “Optimo FDL,” joined the ranks of a swelling urban bachata movement that is generating cross-country sales.
“I don’t think it will be the phenomenon reggaeton was in its moment, but it’s definitely a genre that crosses nationalities easily,” said Lorenzo Braun, VP of A&R and marketing for Sony BMG Latin’s urban/tropical division. “It’s a very noble genre that appeals as much in the East Coast as in the West.”
That in itself is an anomaly, given that with the exception of pop, Latin music subgenres in the United States tend to work in specific geographical zones. Regional Mexican stations, for example, proliferate on the West Coast and in the Midwest, while tropical stations are concentrated in the East.
Unlike the reggaeton explosion of 2005 and 2006, the growth of urban bachata has been slow and organic. The potential of the genre first came to light in 2003 with Bronx-based trio Aventura and its worldwide hit “Obsession.” In 2004 the Spanish version of the song reached No. 1 in Europe and later was a mainstream hit in the United States in Frankie J’s English-language version.
REGGAETON LED THE WAY
But other urban bachata acts began gaining traction only last year, aided by the increasing willingness of some Latin radio stations to play reggaeton and other urban-leaning rhythms.
“The very first stations that jumped on (urban bachata) were the reggaeton stations,” according to George Zamora, president of Univision Music Group’s La Calle Records, whose roster includes urban bachata duo Xtreme. The group’s sophomore album, “Haciendo Historia,” has sold close to 80,000 copies since its release in December, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
“It wasn’t your typical tropical phenomenon,” Zamora said. “They’re using a lot of American-flavored R&B lyrics in it. It’s very melodic.”
The ranks of urban bachata acts on the charts include Aventura -- by far the top-selling act in the genre -- and Toby Love. Newcomers include Optimo and soon-to-be-launched Lenny (on Universal Music Latino) and John John (on La Calle/Univision).
With the exception of John John, who hails from Los Angeles, these bachata artists are Dominicans born and/or raised in New York, fully bilingual and bicultural.
Yet urban bachata acts don’t just sing in Spanish; their rhythm is as traditionally Latin as it gets. And yet, despite its localized origins, the style appeals to a broad swath of young, U.S.-born Latins.
Urban bachata doesn’t mark the first time that tropical genres have been married to urban beats. Merengue, which is also Dominican but more fast-clipped, has at times incorporated American beats into its music, as has, of course, reggaeton.
But bachata, with its slower beat and use of acoustic guitars and gentle percussion, invites the romantic lyrics and vocalizing associated with R&B ballads.
“Bachata was a much easier, better way to express our music,” says Steve Styles, one-half of duo Xtreme. “Merengue is harder, it’s one beat. Bachata lends itself more to romantic material.”